Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bt Egg(plant) on the Face

Much has already been written about the Bt brinjal report fiasco by six of India's National Academies. If you don't know what I am talking about Nanopolitan has a nice summary including all relevant links. Yesterday one of the many distinguished fellows of INSA received a 'mea culpa' mail from the President of INSA. I am not at liberty to quote it since I was only shown it informally but the mail, if anything, makes things worse and carries traces of the same sloppy work of the main report.

To begin with, it even misspells the name of the Minister of Environment Jairam Ramesh as Jayaram Ramesh. You would think Jairam Ramesh has been in the news long enough for his spelling to register in most people's mind. Secondly after much talk about how this was the first attempt to bring six academies together (as if six academies together should be excused for sloppiness but one shouldn't), it actually admits that they could have done a better job and that the present report should be withdrawn and re-written. However, and this is interesting, the 'baby should not be thrown out with the bath water' meaning I suppose most of the conclusions should stand. I wonder why that should be so, since it also turns out that this is not an independent report but a rehashed version of a report by one Anand Kumar. Why should be assume that a genuine independent study by the academies would throw up the same conclusions?

The second interesting point is that the President of INSA chooses to present his defense to what might be called his biradari -- the fellows of the academy. Should not this mail have gone to the public in general and specifically to the media which mounted this campaign along with an advocacy group against GM crops. Why keep the justification within the family -- what purpose does it serve? Of course, one does not know if the President of the other academies have even sent a letter justifying a stand or they just hope if they wait this out, it will all blow over.

This is not an isolated incident. Many people will recall the episode of the Mashelkar report and accusations of plagiarism. Why do these things happen?

I really don't believe that these scientists are mediocre or are plagiarists -- far from it. Both the Presidents of INSA and IAS (Bangalore) are very distinguished scientists. However, there is a tendency in India to pass off work to a low level flunky, particularly if it is considered not so important (and definitely not a paper one is writing for a reputed journal). I suspect this is what has happened here too. The work was probably palmed off to some low level functionaries who used that well known research tool 'Google' to do their 'research'. The top bosses glanced cursorily at the result (surprisingly not noticing that a cornerstone of research papers -- proper referencing -- was non existent). There was, in other words, no serious oversight, no proper attribution, and yet, the heads of the academies were willing to put their reputation on the line by putting their names on the report. They presumably assumed that the report would just end up in some dusty cupboard in some government office never to see the light of day. Instead of which, it landed on the table of one of our most pro-active ministers!

Just as a comparison, here is the report on global warming by the American Physical Society. Click on the link to get the PDF version of the full report.

P.S. Just learnt from Nanopolitan again that the National Academy of Medical Sciences has dumped the report! Hmm....a case of rats deserting a sinking ship? Wonder what else will unfold in the next few days....

P.P.S.: Here is the letter of the President of INSA to the Fellows of the Academy, complete with misspelt name and all (courtesy a colleague).

P.P.P.S.: See also a recent letter by Gautam Menon and Rahul Siddharthan on this issue.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Should not this mail have gone to the public in general and specifically to the media which mounted this campaign along with an advocacy group against GM crops.

It did. One of them sent it on to me, with original sender name and cc's intact; many of the usual suspects among the media were cc'd, and the original sender was the executive secretary of INSA, so I think you can assume that it is OK to reproduce the letter, if you like.

vbalki said...

1. For practical reasons, it is obvious that the actual details and implementation of policy decisions have to be left to the functionaries below the top level, in any organisation. Here is where the problem starts. Attention to detail is precisely what is missing in our culture. There is also the problem of too many major responsibilities being assumed by any single individual. Taken together, these two factors are responsible for many of our problems. The present instance would appear to be no exception. You have mentioned the blatant mis-spelling of the minister's name in the report. The INSA president's letter speaks of "throwing the baby with the bath water", rather than throwing the baby *out* with the bath water. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Some years ago, the academies laboured long and hard to come up with the following rousing slogan for the then new millennium:

"Let 21st century be the India's century!"[sic],

thereby proving that the collective wisdom of the academies was in consonance with the well-known Indian penchant for the misplaced definite article. And have we not heard of "Mission to moon"[sic]?

2. Seriously (not that I regard the correct use of the definite article as a non-serious matter:-), it would be nice if there were greater courage of conviction, and less equivocation, on the part of the science academies when scientific matters and related issues are concerned.
The protest against the proposal to club astronomy and astrology together in university departments should have been far more immediate, persistent and unambiguous. Likewise, the stand againt plagiarism and plagiarists, when incontrovertible evidence has been presented, should always be clear, firm, loud and strong. Waffling and equivocating on these issues may be in keeping with the general ethos of the nation, but not exactly the approach expected of learned bodies.

AmOK said...

"I really don't believe that these scientists are mediocre or are plagiarists -- far from it. Both the Presidents of INSA and IAS (Bangalore) are very distinguished scientists."

Without any specific requirements for format and content, quality or review, anything can be a called a "report". I don't think it is a matter of flunkies. Perhaps things would change if people like yourself challenged the claim of the scientists to "being distinguished" when they allow such reports to be produced within their purview.

Anant said...

@vbalki and @AmOk have both hit various nails on the heads. In addition, the main problem seems to me that various bodies at the highest levels do not seem to really know what they exist for. It would be very good to resolve this matter once and for all. Once that is done, one may then think of higher standards of professionalism and meeting of goals (that also require definition).